It was March 2008, and America was about to belly-flop into the Great Recession.
Wall Street powerhouse Bear Stearns had just imploded, sending shock waves through the world financial markets. Savings and jobs were beginning to vanish. Foreclosure notices were papering over neighborhoods. And as a financially terrified nation began rummaging the couch cushions for spare change like never before, Subway launched the $5 foot-long special.
The budget deal – 12 inches of bread, meat and veggies for a few bucks – became an immediate hit for the Connecticut-based fast-food brand. As Businessweek reported in 2009, within the first two weeks of the campaign, sales shot up 25 percent on average at Subway shops. The marketing jingle became a pop culture phenomenon. Eventually, the $5 foot-long would generate $3.8 billion in nationwide sales by the end of August 2009, lifting Subway into the top 10 fast-food brands in the country.
Fast-forward to today: The $5 foot-long as the world knows it is no more.
In an interview with USA Today, Subway CEO Trevor Haynes revealed that the company no longer will require franchisees to run the special. In recent years, the promotion had become a contentious point among store owners, some of who felt the deal did not help their profitability. Moving ahead, owners will be able to decide on their own whether they want to use the offer, according to the paper.
“How do we help our franchises with more of a regional value message, so they’re able to [have] a value proposition that fits with their economic model,” Haynes told USA Today. “If you look at California, there’s a very different cost of business than in Arkansas.”
The chain started in 1965, the brainchild of a 17-year-old named Fred DeLuca, who hoped the business would put him through medical school. The origins of the $5 deal reach back to 2004, when a Miami franchise owner named Stuart Frankel noticed that his two Subway restaurants at a local hospital were quiet on the weekends. His solution was to knock a buck off the usual price for a 12-inch sandwich – hence, $5.
“I like round numbers,” Frankel told Businessweek.
Soon, his hospital restaurants were swamped on the weekends. The promotion caught on with store owners until the corporate office took notice and brought the special to all of the company’s locations.
The food scene today is much different from the market Subway dominated during the lean recession years with a quirky jingle and unbeatable price. The brand currently has more than 44,000 franchises across 110 countries. But as The Washington Post reported in 2015, Subway has suffered from competition from chains such as Chipotle and Firehouse Subs, rivals that apparently offer better-quality food and more options for consumers.
The company’s image was not helped when Jared Fogle, the brand’s pitchman, was handed a 15-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2015 to child pornography charges.
In his interview with USA Today, Haynes, the company’s CEO, acknowledged Subway locations will begin offering new menu items and specials.
“Affordable food is what we’ve always stood for,” Haynes told the paper. “It’s not just about one price point.”